II. Introduction to Adaptive Leadership
We’ve just talked about the practice of adaptive foresight and management on teams, a practice that begins with careful, open-minded learning, then devo (anticipation) and evo (innovation) thinking, includes appropriately strategic thinking, and the rest of the Eight Skills of effective management. In Chapter 4, we’ve also described the practice of these skills on ourselves.
As scholars like Peter Drucker argue, good management, of ourself and others, is a prerequisite for good leadership, but it is not enough. Leadership requires more, including a vision for where should go, and the ability to help others adopt their own version of such a vision for themselves. We’ve argued that the Five E’s or the Eight Goals give us one evo devo consistent vision for progress, for how to sustain good teams, organizations, and societies. Thus the The Eights give us a basic model for leadership skills and goals.
But there is much more to leadership than this, so let’s say a bit more at this point in the Guide.
Another valuable model to understand in evo devo terms is Lewin’s Leadership Styles. The three classic styles are autocratic (authoritarian) leadership, democratic leadership, and laissez-faire leadership. Psychologist Kurt Lewin first studied these three leadership styles in an ingenious experiment started in 1939, and went on to found the field of group dynamics. Autocratic leaders are command-and-control oriented. They allow little to no decisionmaking input from their supervisees, and constantly give top-down guidance, and may micromanage. Democratic leaders elicit ideas from group members, and at times also offer their own guidance. They encourage group interaction and often follow group consensus but retain the right to final say. Laissez-Faire leaders offer little guidance, near-complete freedom for their supervisees most of the time, delegate extensively, and expect independence, self-motivation, and bottom-up decisionmaking. They may also cull low-performers based on their pre-agreed performance metrics in their very infrequent leadership interventions, something that didn’t happen in Lewin’s research, which was just the beginning of our understanding of these three basic styles.
Lewin’s experiment involved eleven-year-old boys, who were assigned to three Boy Scout-style after school clubs, led by adult leaders instructed to use these three styles to lead group activities. Each child was rotated through all three styles, six weeks at a time, and their reactions and interactions were meticulously documented and filmed. This study made clear that leadership style is often a powerful determinant of group culture and the kind of work that occurs, independent of the personalities of group members. Later work by others has independently found that each style has advantages at times, but each also has a cost. One of the styles, democratic, seems most adaptive for most environments, most of the time.
The experiment found that autocratic leadership, and its top-down accountability elicited the most wor, and “tension” (stress, fear) from the boys, but only when the leader was monitoring group activity. As the leader’s energy and focus flagged, so did the group. Creativity was greatly restricted, moving at the pace of the leader, and in-group conformity was high. Mini-autocracies, factions run by power-seeking subordinates emerged, political infighting was high, and the group was rather unhappy. If the autocratic leadership had run longer than six weeks, we might expect the most burnout (most work and least sense of control) as well. In situations when what needs to be done is well understood (needing execution, not creativity), when short term speed is important, or the group needs to be temporarily united, autocratic leadership may be best, as a way to get back in control, and get it done. But the high costs of this style for any extended period of time are important to understand.
Laissez-faire leadership, being entirely evolutionary or bottom-up, was the most chaotic. The boys did a lot less work than under each of the other styles, it was of poorer quality, and again they were unhappy with their experience. Creativity, without any top-down or group accountability, turned to distraction. As each group member imitated the hands-off qualities of the leader, members communicated with each other the least usefully as well. Lewin’s experiment argues strongly that the holacracy governance experiments that we find today at companies like Zappos and Valve will remain rare, and have many ways to fail. This style may need highly self-actualized group members to work well. Small groups of highly self-accountable individuals that need to maximize their creativity might find this group leadership style works best for them at times. Laissez-faire leadership may also be ideal at the beginning of learning activities, as a form of creative exploration, prior to in-group competition or cooperation. But again, the high costs of this style for any extended period of time are important to understand.
Democratic leadership, as in our democratic political systems, is an evo devo mix of top-down (leader) and bottom-up (group and majority) accountability. Lewin found the boys worked less hard than under the autocratic group, but more than the laissez-faire group, and the creative quality of their work and play was considerably higher under this style. Group members also felt the most valued in this style, and were happiest. They mimicked the qualities of their leaders, as in other styles, which meant they listened to and praised each other more frequently, and more often sought consensus with others, rather than either issuing edicts or ignoring them, as in other styles.
Lewin used this experiment to explore the critical features that make democracy work for individuals, and he began to build a case that the democratic style is most adaptive most often. To this hypothesis I would further argue, using the 95/5 rule that we find in evo-devo biology, that like living systems, it probably makes most sense to empower our people to work bottom-up 95% of the time, and to restrict our top-down decisions, praise, punishment, rules, and other leaders interventions to a very minor, and carefully chosen, 5% of the time. In other words, good leaders probably spend most of the time resisting being managers, and staying out of the way of their team, and looking for those minimum interventions that will have maximum benefit.
There are many substyles of democratic leadership, with different mixes of top-down and bottom-up policies and priorities. Let’s mention just three that seem particularly important. A very effective democratic style is servant leadership, in which the leader puts the needs and goals of their group members first, including their emotional needs. Transformational leadership, where leaders seek to help group members achieve their own personal potential and fulfill their own largely self-determined goals, is another approach, and is a particularly well-studied democratic style. Another very effective style has the clunky name “Leader-leader” leadership. It focuses not only on self-development, but encouraging group members to interact with others as leaders, moving from leader-follower to leader-leader interactions.
All three can be very helpful in different contexts. For a good book on servant leadership, start with Greenleaf and Spears Servant Leadership (2002). For a classic on transformational leadership, see James Burns, Transforming Leadership (2004). For a great example of the leader-leader style, see David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around! (2013). Finally, for an ingenious book that combines transformational leadership and exercise, see Carol Himelhoch’s Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training (2014). Exercise is a critical kind of “good stress”, improving our ability to handle stress of all types, and it gives us an immediate sense of control over our energy and mood. Stress-recovery cycles, as found in interval training, are in turn key ways to quickly build physical and mental energy stores.
What insights can we gain for self-leadership from Lewin’s three styles? On self-reflection, it’s clear we all talk to ourselves and resolve disagreements within our own mind using autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire styles at different times. Autocratic thinking, enforcing one single way of thinking and doing on ourselves, may make the most sense at times, and we can get a lot done for short periods, but we should be mindful of its costs in creativity and self-actualization. We can say the same for laissez-faire thinking, which can be a great thinking style when we need rest, recreation, imagination, and play.
But as with group leadership, it seems likely that most of the time, an evo devo approach to self-leadership, where our executive mind lets all our valid different ways of thinking argue with each other, with ambiguity and creative conflict, may be the best way forward, especially when we face poorly structured problems and rapid environmental change. Author Abigail Adams once said “I’ve always felt that a person’s intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting points of view he can entertain simultaneously on the same topic.”As poet Walt Whitman says in his Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Computer scientist Marvin Minsky, in The Society of Mind (1988), offered a theory of mind which argued are each of us are a “society of mindsets”.
In other words, it may be most adaptive, most of the time, to understand ourselves as a “mental democracy” in which each our our unique mindsets gets adequate “representation” by our executive mind. Our conscious mind should seek to maximize creative interchange, trust, and mutual empathy between all the usefully different points of view we can see on a topic. That in turn may improve our empathy with others, and our ability to see more of the opportunities and risks in front of us at any point in time.
This is not to deny the great value of top-down thinking, which must be regularly exercised as well. For example, on occasion, certain biased, flawed, addictive, or harmful ways of bottom-up thinking need to be extinguished by our executive mind. We can do this, for example, by enforcing substitute behaviors and thinking habits on ourselves whenever the undesirable kind of thinking emerges. That kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy will cause the undesirable mindset to eventually attenuate to extinction.
About.com has a quick quiz that will help you understand which of Lewin’s leadership styles you use most often. It might be most helpful to ask all your supervisees to take an anonymous version of this quiz that allows commentary, with a mutually trusted third party or software platform administering it while maintaining confidentiality (anonymous 360 degree feedback). You can also take the quiz yourself, but the difference between your and your supervisees perspective is what will really be interesting. You may think you’re always democratic, for example, but many or your supervisees, if free to speak their mind, might classify you as an autocrat or an absentee leader in various ways. Find out, and adjust if necessary.
For a deep dive on organizational behavior, leadership and group dynamics in organizational settings, Natemeyer and Hersey’s Classics of Organizational Behavior, 4th Edition (2011), with fifty-four classic papers, is a great resource for understanding what some of our best-known scholars have learned over the last century and a half on leadership, motivation, and group behavior.
We’ve previously defined Adaptive Foresight as the practice of all Eight Skills of the Do loop in the specific production and review of foresight work. Many foresight professionals, and particularly consultants, are often not responsible for the Execution, Influence, Relating and Reviewing activities that their foresight recommends. If they are only responsible for those skills in relation to their foresight work, and they don’t lead others in that production activity, they are foresighters, but not necessarily leaders. If they have wider responsibilities, they need to think about how to be good leaders.
Adaptive Leadership can be defined as the practice of all Eight Skills in any formal or informal leadership position, for any organization or group. Adaptive leaders who are in executive roles not only try to build competency across the Eight Skills, they also need to understand as many of the Twenty Functions as possible, and be able to get advice and guidance in those functions when it would be helpful to the organization.
An excellent primer on organizational leadership that is categorically convergent with the Eight Skills is Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge (TLC) (2012). TLC is built around five top leadership disciplines, but the content of their professional development curriculum covers all Eight Skills, so we particularly recommend for leadership development. The TLC Chapter titles and topics that parallel the Eight Skills are given in parentheses below:
- Learn (Foster Collaboration, The Leadership Challenge’s/TLC’s Chapter 9)
- Anticipate (Envision the Future, TLC’s Chapter 5)
- Innovate (Experiment and Take Risks, TLC’s Chap 8)
- Strategize (Search for Opportunities, TLC’s Chap 7)
- Execute (Find Your Voice, 3; Strengthen Others, TLC’s Chap 10)
- Influence (Be Credible, 2; Set the Example 4; Enlist Others, TLC’s Chap 6)
- Relate (Recognize Contributions, TLC’s Chap 11)
- Review (Celebrate Victories [and Learn from Mistakes], TLC’s Chap 12)
Notice that just as Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People puts more emphasis on the relating skill, The Leadership Challenge puts a bit more emphasis (three of eleven chapters) on influence than the other seven skills. That is to be expected in a treatise on leadership development, yet I would argue that all Eight Skills are equally important to great leadership.
Leaders in training can also benefit from Kouzes and Posner’s online Leadership Practices Inventory, available both as a self-assessment ($40) and a 360-degree team assessment ($150). Also of value is The Leadership Challenge Workbook (2012), with tips for putting their model into action.
Our 33rd president, the plainspoken pragmatist Harry Truman, once called leadership “that quality which can make others do what they do not want to do and like it.” This definition underscores the visionary, persuasive, and dangerous nature of leadership in comparison to management. It reminds us of the need for foresight, inspiration, and ethics in our leaders.
Those qualities are just the start. The more one leads, the more one is tested by one’s responsibilities and the group, and the list of qualities that will help you thrive as a leader grows longer the more experience you gain. Some that seem particularly important include:
- Foresight/Vision (internal and facilitated)
- Ethics/Integrity/Honor/Sense of Justice
- Communication Ability/Clarity/Tact
- Delegation Ability/Trust
- Ability to Praise/Recognize Excellence
- Service-orientation/Leader Development Ability
- Drive/Ambition/Need to Excel
- Loyalty/Ability to Follow
It isn’t necessarily obvious, but leaders should even strive to have good posture. This is because the way one sits, stands, and walks conveys social signals. Studies have shown that people who consciously improve their posture prior to and during interviews, talks, and performance evaluations actually are more confident and are seen as more confident and able to lead. See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about so-called power poses, Your body language shapes who you are (2012).
A few of these are addressed by Gallup in their useful Strengths-Based Leadership (2009). Kouzes and Posner’s Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It (2011) is another good outline of leadership qualities, as is Johnson and Harper’s Becoming a Leader the Annapolis Way (2004), on the Navy’s well-known approach to leadership training. Pursuing self-development of all these qualities, and taking leadership opportunities when they present themselves, will steadily improve your abilities.
Leadership is an endless and exciting journey of human development both for yourself and for those you lead, and help become leaders. If you remember that all leadership begins with self-leadership, including prioritization, focus, self-motivation, integrity, humility, credibility, and service-orientation, you will be on a proven self-development path, and may lead your team well and far.